2017 was a remarkable year in many ways. In late Spring we watched one of America’s favorite entertainers tried for sexual assault. In October, prominent producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women. The list of prominent men who have fallen from grace since the Weinstein story broke on October 5 would occupy a blog site of its own. As this is written, a story has broken that a California legislator and leader of the #MeToo movement has found herself charged with sexual harassment by two people; a former staffer and a lobbyist.
While is it always tempting to write about those who are prominent, most of us who live in relative obscurity view them as “different.” We like to think that perhaps the victims were complicit or at least indifferent to what occurred. A common refrain I hear, even from women, is that the victim knew what she was getting into. Others rally to the side of the victims, plainly asserting that the mere assertion of assault is prima facie evidence that it occurred. I try to stay away from these stories because where wealth and power enter the equation, reality can become distorted.
That is what made my view of Anderson Cooper’s interview of Jennifer Willoughby so compelling. Willoughby was not a public figure when she summoned the police to intervene in her domestic life in June, 2010. She was just the bride of a 32 year old Senate staffer. On paper, Rob Porter was everything a person would want in a spouse. Harvard. Mormon missionary work in London. Harvard Law. Rhodes Scholar at Oxford just like his father, the professor at Harvard. But, in 2010 Ms. Willoughby reports that despite his polished and highly effective work in the United States Senate, their domestic life was overtaken by fear for her physical safety.
I would commend every parent with teenage children to make them watch the CNN interview with Willoughby. The interview can be found at Daily Beast with reference to Jennifer Willoughby. https://www.thedailybeast.com/rob-porters-ex-wife-warns-hope-hicks-hell-abuse-you-next As I began to watch it I did so with some lawyerly skepticism, mainly because the story was old as was the divorce of the couple. Many divorced couples love to dish on each other while millions watch. Jerry Springer has made that model work for almost three decades.
But Willoughby was different. She came straight out and explicitly said she had no agenda and wished her former spouse no harm. I was still skeptical. Until, in a very unscripted way, she began to ponder how what occurred arose from her choice of Rob Porter as her spouse. Unlike many victims, she was not transferring blame to herself. Not at all. She was exploring how a relationship that once felt so right had traveled to such a bad place. In 35 years of practicing law on behalf of victims and perpetrators, if I had a wish for all of them, it would be the self-conferred gift of introspection. Whether knowingly or not, we have the ability to push the emotional buttons of those whom we profess to love. On July 28 Redbook published 50 phrases that we use everyday that push those anger buttons. On November 21, 2017 Best Life published 20 Things No Husband Wants to Hear. Most of these phrases would not be welcomed by any partner. Any jurist who hears domestic violence cases will tell you that it is common to hear “Your honor, he punched me for no reason.” Only psychotic people punch other humans “for no reason.”
If there was one area in the Willoughby interview where I think she strayed too far, it was her speculation about the woman her former husband is today dating. Every relationship is different. Ms. Willoughby may have incited violence without her even knowing how she did it. She may have incited violence through conduct that even outsiders would not notice. This is no justification for any violent conduct on the part of her then husband, but, rather than identify patterns of behavior that cause that domestic violence we rush to label people as “bad” or “good”. What I found most instructive about the Jennifer Willoughby interview was that she made clear Rob Porter was not a “bad” man; he was a man who had issues with controlling his anger. Thirty years ago, addiction was equated with moral failure. We know better today and this writer submits that our views of anger and the violence it causes merit the same evolution in thinking that we have witnessed with substance abuse. People afflicted with anger management problems do not benefit from ostracism; they require help.
Again, I commend every reader to give Jennifer Willoughby 26 minutes of time by listening to her tell her story. Of course, there are two sides to every story. But, no matter what the truth, Ms. Willoughby’s story is one every person can learn from.